France 19 England 12 – the French save the sport of rugby from extinction. Too much? I don’t think so. Martin Johnson’s team has been trying to prove that rugby games can be won in the gym. More muscle, more directness, eliminating mistakes. If he’d been right, and until this defeat nobody could be quite sure he wasn’t, then rugby as a game would have been thought out, thought through.
This may not be overstating the case. Billiards, as an example, was an engaging and competitive sport until training and application discovered its limits. When the Australian Walter Lindrum made a break of 4137 points in the World Billiards Championship in 1932, the game was up. Billiards had been an entertaining contest between happy-go-lucky amateurs. As a professional sport, when the players wanted to win at all costs, it was exposed as a pastime of limited skills and permutations.
The Johnson team wanted to demonstrate that winning was possible without basic catching and passing skills, without either intelligence or wit. They were attempting to defy the joy and spectacle of rugby, the hope for sporting astonishment. They failed. The ploy of standing props at first receiver, of leaving the hooker out on the wing comes from the same thought process that led to three second rows on the pitch at the same time. And perhaps four, counting Banahan in the centre. Johnson wanted to win the game with models of himself, in the way he knows best. Not enough. The game itself has bested him.
Unpredictability will still win big rugby games, spontaneity and evasion. If they didn’t, there wouldn’t be a game worth watching, and the sport has proved itself bigger than England’s limited ambition. All true believers must have hoped it would be so. I had such faith in rugby that Paddy Power had my money as a down-payment on the past and future belief that rugby union is a varied and intricate code of football.
Now I’m off to spend the winnings. On English beer, of course.